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Benedict Cumberbatch: Success? It's elementary

His performance as a waspish Sherlock Holmes has been hailed as seminal. Next he's appearing as Frankenstein at the National Theatre. Is he ready for the horrors of superstardom?

If he were completely honest, Benedict Cumberbatch would confess he hasn't quite had the week he wanted.

Nominated for best drama performance at the National Television Awards, for his starring role in the BBC's Sherlock, the prize went to David Jason. And though Sherlock was nominated for best drama, it too lost out, to Waterloo Road.

The actor met both results stoically. He had earlier spoken of how delighted he was to be nominated, because "it's a validation that [the programme] has been doing something right". That mirrors what industry figures have been saying about Cumberbatch recently. And after a string of acclaimed turns that have given him a kitchen-table recognition, the next 12 months may see him become a superstar.

He will shortly take up the role of Major Stewart in Steven Spielberg's War Horse, a project shrouded in anticipation-building secrecy but unlikely, given Spielberg's record, to lack publicity on release. As if that weren't enough, Cumberbatch is about to begin previews in what must be the year's hottest stage show: National Theatre's forthcoming Frankenstein. Directed by that other Oscar-winner, Danny Boyle, the production will see him play both professor and monster, alternating day by day with his co-star Jonny Lee Miller.

In truth, it's about time. At 35, Cumberbatch is a rather senior Next Big Thing. Like Daniel Craig before him, his rise to prominence has been a slow one. It's a curious fact, given his obvious talents – all the more so, when you consider that he has yet to star in anything that hasn't been a hit. Ever since 2004's Bafta-nominated portrayal of the eponymous scientist in BBC2's Hawking, Cumberbatch has been on a winning streak.

After that performance, he played Edmund Talbot in the mini-series To the Ends of the Earth, and then the reclusive Stephen Ezard in The Last Enemy, for which a received another Best Actor nomination, this one at the Satellite Awards. On the big screen he has been steadily clocking up credits for years. He played William Pitt the Younger in the small but well received Amazing Grace, then the toffee-nosed rapist Paul Marshall in Atonement, and then William Carey, Scarlett Johansson's portentous husband, in The Other Boleyn Girl. Indeed, the only real dud – the only proper black mark on his CV – is an unreleased pilot for The Dark Side of the Earth, a Victorian sci-fi about a hypochondriac who inhabits a sealed body suit.

Perhaps it is his face that has, until now, prevented Cumberbatch from entering the major league. Despite his burgeoning status as the thinking woman's crumpet – "weirdly fanciable" is the phrase most associated with his physique – he doesn't possess the obvious, symmetrical looks of a star. His glossy brown hair sits in fashionless curls, and his face appears strangely malleable: soft, somehow, and undoubtedly posh.

Or perhaps it was his name. Wanda Ventham and Timothy Carlton were both jobbing actors when their son was born in the summer of 1976. Cumberbatch was the latter's family name; the more vanilla Carlton adopted on the advice of his agent. It was an affectation which Cumberbatch initially imitated, beginning his career as Ben Carlton. Only when a colleague mentioned that his birth name would be a far better way for the young actor to stand out did he change his mind.

Despite his thespian heritage, Cumberbatch's youth was a conventional one. His parents, he has reflected, did everything they could to ensure that he wouldn't follow them into the business. And so it was that, on the verge of adolescence, he found himself living within the clipped-grass confines of Harrow public school. With an arts scholarship and penchant for painting, the young Cumberbatch did, by all accounts, throw himself into boarding school life. "It suited me down to the ground," he has said. "I fell in love with the place." He also nurtured his penchant for the stage, studying drama under the tutelage of Martin Tyrell. Cumberbatch was, says Tyrell, "the best schoolboy actor [I] have ever worked with", Thus encouraged, familial efforts to carve out an alternative path were thwarted: Cumberbatch left school, travelled to Tibet for his gap year, and then enrolled at the University of Manchester to study drama.

Manchester offered the aspiring actor a new set of circumstances, away from what he has termed the "cashmere jumpers" of his school life. He broadened his horizons, and his social group. "I had a thoroughly healthy – and unhealthy – mix of friends." He also met the actress Olivia Poulet, who became his long-term partner. Still together, the pair live in a small flat in north London, and Cumberbatch, at least, openly declares his desire for a family. On graduating, he embraced a further year of study – this time at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. By the time he graduated, at the age of 24, he had an agent waiting to take him on.

If Cumberbatch got a late start in an industry of school-leavers, it didn't give him cause to fret. Even before his Hawking breakthrough, he was fortunate, securing roles for which many a young actor would happily trade their dole money. Appearances on Heartbeat, Spooks and Silent Witness were complemented by a flourishing stage presence; he has returned regularly to Regent's Park Open Air Theatre, the Almeida, the Royal Court and the National. Frequently, it turned out, those roles which he didn't win – the roles that could have propelled him to prominence a little more rapidly – went to that other slow burner, Michael Sheen.

Along the way, Cumberbatch earned the admiration of virtually everyone he worked with. An accomplished mimic, he is swottish in his approach to work, learning the violin for Sherlock and horse riding for War Horse. Before playing Pitt, he asked to be shown around Parliament by the former prime minister's biographer, William Hague. In preparation for his role as Hawking, he travelled to meet his subject. That performance posed a particular challenge, given that the Hawking presented in his script was not the one of popular imagination. Focusing on his early career at Cambridge, it shows the physicist before vocal paralysis sets in. For Cumberbatch, there were few clues or mannerisms to take note of.

If his studious approach has helped him to perfect his craft, it was less helpful during a life-threatening incident in South Africa. After a long day shooting To the Ends of the Earth, Cumberbatch and two colleagues were carjacked on a motorway near the Mozambique border. After we he bound and relegated to the boot of the car, his mind began frantically to whirr: memorising the lines of the Radiohead song playing and cursing himself for not knowing Morse code. (He could, he reasoned in his agitated state, communicate with his colleagues by squeezing their hands.) Two and half hours later, the group's ordeal ended; Cumberbatch responded by pursuing a series of high-adrenalin sports, from skydiving to hot-air ballooning.

Five years after that encounter, and a year before Sherlock turned him into a household name, he came close to achieving fame though other means. A friend of the Doctor Who writer Steven Moffat, he nearly succeeded David Tennant as the television Time Lord. Ultimately, the role went elsewhere; when Sherlock came up, Moffat again approached him, and this time the collaboration happened.

As it turned out, it was a character which suited Cumberbatch perfectly. Among his various guises on stage and screen and television, he has managed to carve out something of a niche, playing the reticent intellectual: Hawking, Sherlock, Victor Frankenstein (and monster). As it propels him to international renown, Major Stewart will offer an antidote to any typecasting; in that role, Cumberbatch will be proud, gladiatorial, commanding. And, of course, he'll be a star.

A life in brief

Born: 19 July 1976, London.

Family: Parents are the actors Timothy Carlton and Wanda Ventham. His partner is the actress Olivia Poulet.

Education: Studied drama at the University of Manchester and postgraduate diploma in classical acting from Lamda.

Career: Breakthrough came with a Bafta-nominated performance as Stephen Hawking in Hawking (2004). He has since starred as Sherlock Holmes in the new BBC series and appeared in films Atonement (2007) and Four Lions (2010). He is due to appear in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy in 2012.

He says: "I've tried very hard not to be typecast as the posh character in period dramas. That's the thing I've been kicking against – to try and shift class and period and perception all the time."

They say: "It's a bit of a blessing that one of the hottest young actors on the planet at the moment happens to look like Sherlock Holmes. He's got that imperious style and he's a bit Byronic." Steven Moffat, co-creator and writer of Sherlock